Apr 13, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 30 • By DAVID FRUM
In his newspaper columns and on the campaign trail, Pat Buchanan has bitterly attacked the overpowering consensus among political elites in favor of free trade. His latest book, The Great Betrayal: How American Sovereignty and Social Justice Are Sacrificed to Gods of the Global Economy, unwittingly demonstrates why that consensus has held so long: The best case for protectionism that one of America's most gifted polemicists can offer is as feeble as any BMW dealer could wish.
The Great Betrayal is crammed with bullet lists of statistics and graphs that swoop alarmingly up or depressingly down in proof of the book's thesis. But examination quickly reveals how carelessly they have been used. Buchanan observes, for example: "Since 1966, the share of American men with jobs has fallen from 85.4 percent to 76.8 percent. Idle men end up in trouble, often in prison." The culprit, he claims, is free trade.
Buchanan is in fact correct that American men are less attached to the labor force than they were thirty years ago. But the single most important reason for that is the aging of the population and the greater generosity of Social Security. Back in 1966, only 8 percent of adult American males were older than sixty-five, and more than 27 percent of them still worked. Today, nearly 11 percent of adult American males are over sixty-five, and only 17 percent of them work. There has been a slight increase in idleness among working-age men, but the main cause is the welfare state: Some two million American men now draw disability pensions from the Supplemental Security Income program -- which did not exist in 1966.
There are dozens of such misuses of statistics in The Great Betrayal. Buchanan declares, for example, that "In the first six years of the 1990s, the median family income fell 6 percent. During the Depression-era 1930s, it rose 17 percent." Apparently aware of the eyebrow-raising nature of this claim, Buchanan footnotes it -- to a page in a book that makes no reference to the 1930s at all. That's not surprising: The federal government only began collecting family-income data after World War II, and if family income had risen by 17 percent in the 1930s, the decade would have been one of the most prosperous in American history. The book Buchanan cites does make reference to the six years from 1989 to 1995: Over that period, which contains a recession, average family income fell not by 6 percent but by 0.6 percent.
Intending to show how free trade has chipped away at manufacturing, Buchanan complains that "America's share of world industrial exports was fast shrinking: from 32 percent in 1950, to 28 percent by 1960, to 20 percent in 1973." But why stop in 1973? According to the World Trade Organization's 1996 annual report, in 1963 the U.S. accounted for 17.4 percent of world exports of manufactures, and in 1973 it accounted for 12.8 percent -- but in 1995 it accounted for 12.4 percent. In other words, it's certainly true that America owns a smaller share of the world economy than it did immediately after the rest of the world had been ravaged by the Second World War. But even granting the eccentric view that national share of world exports provides a valid way to measure a nation's economic condition, America's relative position for the past twenty-five years has held steady. Measured in just about any other way, America's economic hegemony is more commanding today than at almost any other moment in the nation's history.
Buchanan, it must be said, is a great storyteller, and one of his most affecting stories describes the impact of foreign competition on American workers. On the campaign trail in 1992, visiting a New Hampshire pulp and paper mill, he shakes the hand of a subdued worker who breaks his downcast silence to plead, "Save our jobs." But there's an intellectual step that must be taken here, and Buchanan -- who repeatedly expresses his disdain for economic reasoning -- refuses to take it.